I had the opportunity to see a preview performance of the new musical SPIDER-MAN: Turn Off the Dark during what has become a traditional Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend trip to New York City. Having been warned in advance that I needed to tell several of my theatre-loving friends what I thought, I’ve decided to capture a few thoughts here while it’s still fresh on my mind. (And before my Sunday brunch with unlimited drinks included.)
So here goes.
First, a quick summary of background. This is, by all accounts, the most expensive Broadway musical ever produced. Telling the tale of Spider-Man’s origins and early years, set against a comic-book themed background with rock music written by U2’s Bono and The Edge, and directed by Julie Taymor of The Lion King fame, it’s a show that clearly epitomizes the “must-see musical” of the year.
It’s also been beset by multiple delays, terrible accidents among its actors and stunt performers, and spiraling costs as the previews get extended longer and longer. Many have openly wondered if Broadway’s most expensive musical would be closed before it even officially opened.
Keep in mind that this WAS a preview performance, so the company is admittedly still working the kinks out of the production. It’s absolutely possible that many of the aspects of my review won’t be applicable to the finished product. (I stirred up some local controversy a few years back by writing about a Charlotte preview performance without being clear about that fact, but this is a public preview with tickets costing more than $100, so I feel justified in sharing.)
To answer the question I’ve gotten most in the past 18 hours: No, as far as I could tell, no-one was injured in the matinee performance yesterday. And they did slightly change the scene that resulted in Christopher Tierney’s shocking injury a few weeks ago.
There are really three big draws to SPIDER-MAN: Turn Off the Dark. There’s the new telling of the beloved Spider-Man story itself, which has built an incredible fan base through its comic book origins, comic strips, cartoons, feature films, and such. There’s the music by Bono and The Edge. And there’s the aerial stunt work that has Spider-Man and others swooping over the audience’s heads during action sequences.
In the interests of semi-brevity, I’ll save my lengthy detail for subsequent posts. For now, I’ll just say that none of these three components were especially great, though there were definitely appealing parts of all three.
SPIDER-MAN: Turn Off the Dark is an interesting concept, but poorly executed. The story glosses over key background, introduces new characters that are poorly defined, and has an ending that the producers are already rewriting because it’s so anticlimactic that you find yourself saying, “Wait, that’s it?!” at the conclusion. The set, at least, was absolutely brilliant in its design and utilization. (Lots more on all of this in another post, coming soon.)
The music is, well, U2… But the male vocals, especially from yesterday’s lead, were hard to understand during powerful scenes and hard not to label “Bono impersonation” in quieter scenes. The female vocals were definitely stronger, though none of the songs necessarily contributed to the story itself.
And the aerial scenes, with Spider-Man and some villains flying through the theatre above the audience, were impressing though not necessarily dazzling. We’ve seen that KIND of flying in other theatre work, though certainly not at these speeds or in aerial combat with other flying performers. It was good, but definitely not something that left you awestruck.
Here’s my advice: Go watch the original Spider-Man movie to enjoy good acting and a thorough story. And then listen to some of your favorite U2 songs. And then, at your next opportunity, see a Cirque du Soleil performance, live if possible (but a DVD will do, in a pinch.)
Those three forms of entertainment each better accomplish the biggest draws of SPIDER-MAN: Turn Off the Dark, at least in the play’s current form. Hopefully they will rewrite the book, fine-tune the music, and tone down the hype about the flying scenes to reduce unattainable expectations… Until then, this show’s great potential just isn’t being fulfilled.